Many Indigenous communities in Canada experience very high suicide rates, especially among young people. In some communities, youth die by suicide 5 times more often than youth from the general population and that number rises to 11 times more if the youth is Inuit. Why are we losing so many young Indigenous individuals to suicide?
The effects of colonization and social and economic inequity in Indigenous communities are at the root, as they can lead to feelings of hopelessness and behaviours which can put individuals at risk for suicide.
Members of Indigenous communities are often closely related and share the same social predicaments; therefore, the impact of a single suicide is often felt by the entire community. There is also a greater risk of individuals killing themselves in response to the suicide, as they may feel depressed and hopeless after the loss of a loved one, and see suicide as an option, a “normal” way to cope with these feelings.
Not all Indigenous communities have high rates of suicide, though. Indigenous leaders and community members are taking great steps to prevent suicide and in communities where control over services is autonomous, and where culture is honoured and taught, suicide rates are very low if not non-existent.
Non-Indigenous Canadians can effect positive change, too. Many Canadians are unaware of the detrimental effects that colonization had and continues to have on Indigenous people and we need champions for Indigenous rights who can inform others and further the process of healing and reconciliation.
Last week, the world lost one such non-Indigenous champion in Gord Downie. Downie brought great awareness to the injustices and historical trauma suffered by Indigenous people. His multimedia project Secret Path is a riveting declaration of his support for Indigenous justice and reconciliation. It chronicles the life and tragic end of Charlie Wenjack, who was sent – like so many other Indigenous children – to a residential school. Charlie escaped from the brutal school, but tragically died trying to return on foot to his far-away home in Northern Ontario.
Near the end of the final Tragically Hip concert in August of 2016, Downie drew attention to PM Justin Trudeau who was there that night, and stated that “(Trudeau’s) leadership will take us where we need to go.” Downie acknowledged that it may take a “hundred years” to rectify the wrongs done to First Nations people; “people who we have been trained to ignore for all of our lives.” This message reached not only the thousands of people in the concert audience, but also the several million others watching on TV.
The massive number of tributes expressed on radio, television, online, and in print about Gord Downie’s death by brain cancer last week says it all: he was well-loved and will be sorely missed. His support of Indigenous causes reached a lot of people.
When the Assembly of First Nation’s Chief Perry Bellegarde heard the sad news that Downie had died he offered this tribute: “I honour the life and work of Gord Downie, a dedicated and accomplished artist who used his profile to advance reconciliation and build support for First Nations peoples. I will always be moved by the powerful moment last December at our Assembly when we honoured Gord for his work, and gave him the Lakota name Wicapi Omani – Walks Among the Stars.”
We hope that the leaders of our country, led by PM Justin Trudeau, will continue to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous people and ensuring their rights. We share our country’s grief at the loss of Gord Downie and believe that if his words and actions educate and motivate even a fraction of his fan base – who might otherwise remain unaware or apathetic to Canada’s true history – then his efforts will have made a difference.